That the modifier “rising” should no longer be applied to “star” when describing the remarkable vocalist Jazzmeia Horn is apparent throughout her sophomore release, Love and Liberation (Concord). Joined by a band of top-shelf under-35ers that includes fellow Thelonious Monk Competition winners Ben Williams and Jamison Ross, the leader imprints her kaleidoscopic personality on Erykah Badu’s “Green Eyes,” Rachelle Ferrell’s “Reflections of My Heart,” Jon Hendricks’ “No More,” and the Van Heusen-Mercer standard “I Thought About You,” and interprets eight original songs to which she composed the music and wrote the lyrics. Horn claims that each number sounds like a jazz standard, and she isn’t lying.
The 28-year-old Dallas native’s star power was fully on display at a September 9 release concert at Le Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village, on the 158 Bleecker Street premises that once housed the Village Gate, where such primary Horn influences as Nina Simone, Jon Hendricks, and Betty Carter performed during the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. Resplendent in a black turban, midriff blouse and flowing pants in matching green-and-gold, and phantasmagorical eye makeup, Horn deployed her wondrous range with minimum restraint and maximum subtlety. She sold the songs with serious-as-your-life soulfulness, and entertained the full house with discursive contextual back stories. She also lived up to her surname in vertiginous improvised exchanges with virtuoso soloists Josh Evans on trumpet and Irwin Hall on alto saxophone, while locking in with a crackling rhythm section—pianist Keith Brown, bassist Williams, drummer Anwar Marshall—whose tempos, grooves, and hits she monitored with kinetic authority.
It was the second concert of a fortnight-long tour; two days later, Horn spoke to JazzTimes over the phone.
JAZZTIMES: What’s your approach to organizing a band?
JAZZMEIA HORN: For my bands, the first thing is whether he or she can play, but everything else about the musician also has to be aligned. My mission is about healing people, bringing happiness and joy. Everything I give on stage is for the people who are coming to see my show, so behind the scenes everything has to be right. I need to be myself entirely, and the only way I can do that is if I’m familiar spiritually with the people I’m playing with. So I try to pick people whose life mission is similar to mine. They’re on time for all my rehearsals and soundchecks, and there’s no problem with ego or attitude—they’re not always trying to take a solo or be up front. They understand that the music is about the music, about us doing something powerful together, playing music that makes people feel good. I like the guys to have dinner and rehearse at my house so they get a chance to meet my daughters and see where I live. Then they become family. You understand their personalities. You understand something about their lives and how their musical journeys have been similar to yours.
What’s your attitude about playing live vis-à-vis recording in the studio?
I like them equally the same. In the studio, I don’t overdub my solos. I sing them live, and if I don’t like the head in or the head out, I might re-record it later. Maybe my voice screeched. On a recording, you want to do it over, since people are going to listen to it consistently. You’re perfecting something in the moment. It shows you it can be done, like completing the deadlines on your daily to-do list. But live, I like that my voice may screech, because it shows people that I’m human. It’s experiencing a moment instead of trying to perfect one. I’ll never be perfect. I’m a musician who doesn’t sing the same solo over and over, which might not be healing because you’re not expressing yourself completely. When I’m improvising, I might miss a change, because I’m thinking about a chord change three measures ahead of where I’m actually singing. You’re in the moment, and you appreciate the moment, but you’re also thinking about where it’s going to end. It’s like aiming for your future goals—you’ll eventually get there.
Your facial expressions and gestural language when you sing are very expressive. You seem to immerse yourself in the lyric. Do you do anything to put yourself in that space?
It’s part of my performance to just be myself. The person you see off stage is the same person you’ll get on stage. People may think I’m acting, because I am an animated person. I am a creative being, just in the way I piece my sentences together, the way I talk about myself, the way I create music—it all has a lot of life in it. People see I’m real and they want to buy it. Everything I do is part of me. It’s not a show … although it is.
You’ve been singing in public since you were three or four, almost around the time you could form language. It started in the Golden Chain Missionary Baptist Church in Dallas, where your grandfather is the pastor. Did his preaching influence your approach to singing and interpretation?
My grandmother, Harriet Horn, who gave me my name, was more an influence than my grandfather. My grandmother played the piano and sang. She was the first lady of the church. Everybody aspired to be like her. You’d see her in the morning and walk straighter. When I was a little girl, I thought she was a goddess. She had a way with children. She was a teacher. No agendas. Start with the basics and help people understand. When she taught choir rehearsal, she’d identify a C-major chord or C-major scale, then we’d sing the notes that she sang or played. She’d say, “Sopranos, make sure you hear that when you’re singing. Everybody’s following you because you’re the top part. If you’re too sharp, you’re going to outshine the choir. If you’re too flat, you’ll bring us all down. You’ve got to be right on it!” I have those genes. When you see me teach at a university or a school, you’re basically watching my grandmother.
You’ve attributed a measure of your simpatico relationship with Sullivan Fortner and Jamison Ross, who play on Love and Liberation, to your shared experiences as Southern Baptists. How does that manifest in the music?
The Baptist Church, or I’ll say Black American Church, COGIC (Church of God in Christ), A.M.E. (African Methodist Episcopal), Southern Baptist … all those churches come from a culture that was based upon the blues and upon the essence of prisoners-of-war, which America likes to call “slaves,” which is a word I don’t like. Their languages were stripped from them. Their anthropology, the way they dressed—and why—were stripped away. But the soul was never broken down, and the soul and the spirit live on through African-American culture, which mostly is music. The only way they could actually continuously be themselves without speaking somebody else’s language was through the drums and the music. Hip-hop music and R&B and pop, what’s played on the radio, is all part of the African-American experience and culture.
You know instinctively when somebody comes out of the church because of how they carry themselves in the music. For instance, if I sing a specific riff or run as I’m thinking jazz—because jazz stems from the blues and gospel—Sullivan or Jamison may follow me with a particular response. If I need to say something about what I’m experiencing and I don’t necessarily want to use English, I might scat. They don’t necessarily know exactly what I’m saying. But sometimes they may, because telepathy exists as well. One beautiful thing about being a jazz musician is experiencing telepathy with these musicians without really meaning to. There are times when, without singing or playing music, we can look at one another and know what’s going to be said. That stems from the culture of the Black American Church, from being able to speak your spirit without being confined to a language—through the music. Music is a direct translation of your soul.
Your remark about scatting reminds me of the individualistic vocabulary you’ve developed in that regard. Can you speak a bit about creating that vocabulary and your arsenal of sounds?
I’m not sitting at home experimenting with those otherworldly high-pitch, low-pitch sounds. That’s literally part of my soul, part of what’s inside me. It just exists. Nothing else sounds exactly like that. I don’t practice it, because I want it to be authentic every time. It’s not like trying to improvise over a blues or play through rhythm changes, when I’ll sit at the piano, play a chord, and then scat over it.
My range has developed through the years. When I was 16, it wasn’t as low or as high as it is now. Over time, I’ve been able to build and perfect notes, stretch my vocal cords and vocal abilities. My bebop vocabulary has also expanded and transformed. That comes from listening to Booker Little, listening to Little Jimmy Scott and to Bebop Betty Carter, listening to Frank Wess, Jackie McLean, René McLean, George Coleman. I may hear J.J. Johnson play a line, and even though that’s trombone and I don’t have that low range, I assimilate it. Once I hear something, I completely digest it, and I can play it back. Just by listening. Not even transcribing. After I transcribe, oh man, then it’s attached to my soul.
You’re not at all shy about paying homage to your heroes, and you reference them in an extremely personal way. Care to say a few words about Betty Carter, Sarah Vaughan, Jon Hendricks, and any other of your stated inspirations?
Some who’ve inspired me I listened to when I was growing up, but I found Betty Carter later in the game, when I was 21, 22. I heard “Tight” [a version of which opens Horn’s 2017 debut album A Social Call—Ed.] first, and it took me into a completely different world. I saw videos she’d done with Roy Hargrove, Ed Thigpen, and Christian McBride, Marc Cary and Nate Smith, interviews with people like Dr. Billy Taylor, and I thought, “This lady is so powerful.” Then I transcribed her voicings and her sound, not because I wanted to be like her, but to see if I could do it. And I could, so I did, and expanded on it, in the same way that when I started singing jazz I sounded exactly like Sarah Vaughan. She was the first vocalist who really made me appreciate my voice. People used to make fun of me because of my Southern accent and low, raspy voice. Now, I can sing high, but it doesn’t feel comfortable to talk way up there. But when I heard Sarah Vaughan, she’d say in her high, sweet speaking voice, “Oh, thank you ladies and gentlemen for tonight”—and then sing so low. I thought that was the coolest thing.
So Sarah Vaughan helped me to love myself more. Betty Carter helped me to bring out my personality. I didn’t meet either of them, but I met Jon Hendricks, who helped me to continue to be me in spite of opposition. He always said, “Don’t worry about anything else; keep changing with the changes, and keep swinging.” Before I met him, I listened to all his lyrics and vocalese and arrangements and albums. He inspired me to be an instrument—that I can tell all kinds of stories with my vocal abilities.
I went to the same high school as Erykah Badu, who was able to juxtapose hip-hop and jazz, to wrap a lot of the nuances from jazz into poetry and hip-hop. A lot of black men don’t get to express themselves. They’re told to be docile: “Don’t cry, you’re supposed to be strong.” But when he gets on that mic and raps, it’s liberating to maybe yell or curse, to talk about different things that are happening in his environment—not like what’s on the radio, but true hip-hop. It’s all part of expression, and Erykah Badu introduced me to that. I’m inspired by her relationships with Common and Talib Kweli, and also Lauryn Hill’s relationship with the Fugees and Mos Def. Gil Scott-Heron, too. It helps me to keep relevant and not be one-sided.
Yes, I am called a jazz artist. But I can also rap. That’s why there’s a lot of poetry on my album. Poetry speaks volumes to me, the same way that rap does, except I’m not going to create a hip-hop beat to put the poetry over. I’ll just sing it or speak it in my regular voice over a song I wrote, like “Time” or, on A Social Call, over “Eye See You” or “People Make the World Go Round.” It’s like me freestyling over a beat in hip-hop. It’s all the essence of Black American Music. I am a very eclectic artist.
What specifically does the word “jazz” mean to you?
I think it’s beautiful that jazz exists as a category, and it’s good for media and marketing. But my name is Jazzmeia, so “jazz” to me means myself. Not in a cocky way. It means whatever the hell I want it to mean, in the moment. If I want to spit hardcore bebop or breathe hardcore poetry that sounds like hip-hop, it’s Jazzmeia. It’s me, the essence of my soul. So I’m not confined by someone else’s word. You’ve probably never heard of another Jazzmeia before. My grandmother created that word, and I’m living completely to the fullest, highest extent of everything that word means. I’m living jazz, Jazzmeia. All those categories were made by men, and other people, but “Jazzmeia” was made by woman, and that’s what I live by.
I’d like to do a big-band record. I’ve started writing my own big-band charts with some original compositions I haven’t recorded that sound like jazz standards. I’ve studied with Cecil Bridgewater, who wrote a lot of charts for his ex-wife, Dee Dee Bridgewater, who is also a great mentor for me. When I was at the New School, I was in Charles Tolliver’s big band, and he’d show me the charts, and how to write out the parts. He told me: “Vocalist is always supposed to be at the top.” He’s the reason I’ve always had tenor saxophone and trumpet in my band—they’re only a ninth apart, and in the same key.
Are you managing yourself now?
Not entirely. But I ended the contract with my manager. One reason why I am as successful as I am is that everything I do is business-oriented. My business is the Artistry of Jazz Horn, and I hope eventually to expand the business and have a manager who manages the Artistry of Jazz Horn, not Jazzmeia Horn the Artist. For example, I design my clothes and sew them, so I’m coming out with my own line in the summer of next year. I also teach, and I’ve developed a curriculum that I’ve patented and copyrighted. I also own a publishing company. I don’t want a manager who just says, “You’re going to play in this place.” I am going to tell the manager what to do, because I am the CEO of the Artistry of Jazz Horn, and all of this is my artistry. I am creating a legacy. I want to build something for my children’s children. Jazz musicians don’t get pensions. I have to start now.